My Grandpa Hanukah Harry
Much like ‘The Grinch Who Stole Christmas,’ my Grandpa Harry was ‘The Grim who Saved Hanukah.’ Here’s the family story of our very own Hanukah Miracle.
Granada Harry was my father’s father, and as I kid I got the feeling my father was not the favorite. At least that’s what I assumed from the fact that my father was the one getting divorced every few years, while his sister and brother were starting nice, stable little families – in the 1970s, no less! At family get-togethers, Grandpa Harry would praise my aunt and uncle for having nice homes and nice kids – then he’d look at me and roll his eyes. As a kid, my impression was that Grandpa Harry was the Family Judge, and the verdict was: Guilt.
Growing up in Chicago, there were two big Jewish holidays: Passover and Hanukah. Passover was always compared with Easter; Hanukah was compared with Christmas. As a kid, I hated Easter. Easter was all about the Easter Egg Hunt: marching around in the cold, looking for chocolate hidden in the bushes, and hoping it was in fact chocolate. Passover was different. Yes, it was tedious, but at least it involved sitting inside eating a meal like civilized people.
But – compared to Christmas – Hanukah was a poor cousin. We didn’t even celebrate Hanukah at my house. My first impressions of Hanukah came from my neighbors, the Weintraubs. The youngest Weintraub was my best friend at grade school, and he was happy to answer questions about Jewishness. I remember once asking if the Weintraubs celebrated Thanksgiving. The answer was ‘Yes, because we’re American.’ Next, I asked if they were celebrating Christmas, and again: ‘Yes, because we’re American.’ They also observed Hanukah, but it mostly consisted of giving the kids Hanukah Gelt: chocolate coins in gold foil. Mr. Weintraub said it was a tradition, and then he joked, ‘Anything we can do to reinforce the stereotype.’
Then came the year Hanukah came early and coincided with Thanksgiving, in late November. Our family gathered at my aunt’s house. And before the Thanksgiving meal, Grandpa Harry gave us those Hanukah Gelt chocolate coins. ‘Anything to reinforce the stereotype,’ I joked. Grandpa Harry gave me a withering look that said ‘You have ruined Hanukah forever.’
But then something happened. Why it was I can’t say. The next year at Thanksgiving, Grandpa Harry gave us real coins. And he displayed a sense of humor. He said, ’If we’re going to reinforce the stereotype, we might as well go all the way.’ And that is how a new tradition began in our family: Hanukah Harry and his Hanukah Gelt. Finally, Harry found a way to make us like Hanukah: he literally paid us.
The tradition continued into my teens and early adulthood. My younger brother used to say ‘Thank goodness Grandpa Harry sends that Hanukah Gelt – now I can afford to buy you guys gifts for Christmas.’
Every year, Hanukah Harry would design his own Hanukah cards. As he retired, he developed what he called his ‘Greeting Card Business.’ Yes, his cards were clearly designed on his home computer and printed with his desktop printer, but there was always a little logo on the back that said ‘ShapCreations.’
And Hanukah Harry was generous. He introduced pay grades. Old enough to drive a car? Your annual Hanukah Gelt went up a bit. Graduate high school? More annual Hanukah Gelt. And if you’d add a new member of the family, he’d bring them right into the tradition. I still remember the time my Dutch girlfriend was becoming my Dutch fiancee. It became clear to my family back home that I was going to be settling down in Amsterdam with her – not back in the US to be near them. It was a stressful period, a painful period. I wasn’t sure if my would-be wife would ever be accepted by parents. And then came two cards for Hanukah that year: one for me and one for her. Grandpa Harry wrote: ‘You make Gregory happy, and that is all that matters.’ Trademark ShapCreations.
Grandpa Harry continued sending us cards – and Gelt – every Hanukah, up until his death a few years ago. And – as I write this – I realize how I’m going to carry on the tradition. Starting this Hanukah, I’m giving my kids money.
Gregory Shapiro is known from Boom Chicago, Comedy Central and BNR Nieuwsradio. He is the author of How to Be Dutch, The Quiz – all the questions that should be on the Dutch citizenship exam according to the expat who’s lived here 20 years.